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Emacs vs Vim

In this tutorial, we will discuss Emacs vs Vim and their similarities and differences. Considering your needs, now you can choose the best text editor to handle your work. 

21 Feb, 23 by Susith Nonis 10 min Read

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If you're a new software engineer, you probably don't know what Emacs or Vim is. If you are a Windows user, you will only use programs like notepad++, notepad, sublime text, visual studio code, etc. The major and most widely used editors for Linux operating systems are Emacs and Vim, which manipulate files and edit texts.

The competition between Emacs and Vim has a long history, as they're more advanced than other Unix platform editors. They have similar features like plugins, scripting, and shortcut keys, but their approach differs.

As text editors become more competitive, the debate over how they can help you do your work at a higher level can drown out their differences. Comparing Emacs to Vim, the feature factor is more significant than freedom most of the time.

Before using any of them, you should know more about their unique strengths and weaknesses. For this purpose, we'll discuss the similarities and differences between Emacs and Vim. 

Text editors allow users to create plain text files that can be parsed by interpreters or compilers and run independently. Some users prefer basic text editors like Mac OS’s TextEdit or the Windows default Notepad. But there are more advanced editors like Atom, Brackets, Sublime, and many others that you can use. In addition to the basic feature set, these advanced editors provide extra niceties you are advised to explore. The extra features set various editors apart, and if you get to know them well, you can decide which features help you get your work done.

There is a rivalry between users of Emacs and Vim called the "Editor War". The rivalry is a part of hacker and free software community culture. All users believed their chosen editor was the most competent and insulted other editors.

Now, we're going to analyze the features of Emacs and Vim.

With an interpretation of Lisp at its core, Emacs is a highly advanced, versatile, and customizable text editor. One of the benefits of Emacs is the possibility of adding different extensions to support text editing functionalities and more features. 

In 1976 David A Moon developed Emacs, which is the oldest software that exists today. Richard Stallman, the founder of GNU/Linux, released GNU Emacs, the most widely used variant (fork) of Emacs, in 1985. The following features are the reason for the popularity of Emacs:

  • It uses colours to highlight syntaxes and even plain texts.
  • It provides useful tutorials and documentation.
  • Unicode supports many natural languages.
  • Supports various extensions, including mail and news, debugger interface, calendar, and many other extensions.

Vim is a command-line-based text editor known as a powerful text editor that has improved the functionalities and features of the old Unix Vi text editor. System programmers and administrators often prefer Vim as the most popular and widely used programming editor. When system programmers and developers write code or edit configuration files, Vim enables syntax highlighting. Vim, or Vi improved, is an improved clone of the text editor, as the name suggests. In 1976, Billy Joy developed the original text editor for the Unix operating system. Later in 1991, Bram Moolenar improved Vi and released it as Vim, which is known as a full-screen editor.

There are two modes of operation for the Unix Vi editor:

  • Command mode: The vi editor may even enter the insert mode when you type a character in the command mode; during the command mode, every character you type is a command that affects the edited text file.
  • Insert mode: In the insert mode, the entered text and character will add to the text in the file. To turn off the insert mode, press the “Escape” key. 

It's helpful to know that while there are many commands for vi, only a handful will be enough for beginning vi users. The Certified Kubernetes Application Developer Exam uses Vim with Kubernetes for Developer Operations (DevOps)

Continue reading to learn more about the similarities and differences between Emacs and Vim. 

While most discussions and wars between Vim and Emacs are about their differences, it's not a bad idea to look at their similarities before examining them. Here are the similarities:

  • Emacs and Vim support cross-platform text editors like Linux, Unix, and Microsoft Windows.
  • In Vim and Emacs, both the graphical user interface and the command line support buffer tabs.
  • Both are available in different languages, including English, Chinese, Polish, Russian, Italian, French, and many others.

The main difference between Emacs and Vim is that Emacs is an extensible, customizable text editor with a long history. At the same time, Vim is a highly configurable text editor based on the Vi editor. Emacs includes syntax highlighting, a large library of extensions, and a powerful command-line interface. Conversely, Vim is a much more lightweight text editor with fewer features but a minimalistic interface that allows for faster editing. Both editors have large communities of users and supporters and have been around for decades.

While we have explained the differences between the two in general, let's take a closer and more precise look at the six differences between them. 

1- User Interface

As Vim was designed to be used on slow terminals, it minimizes the number of keystrokes users must press. Generally, Vim offers editing modes, including insert mode and command mode.

On the other hand, by using modifier keys, Emacs enables shortcuts in which you must press several keys simultaneously for a single function. Most users often criticize this aspect of Emacs.

2-Graphical User Interface (GUI)

In Vim and Emacs, graphical user interfaces are either shortcut commands for quick configuration or shortcuts to handle shortcut commands on the graphical interface. There are no additional functions beyond those available in the command-line interfaces provided by the GUIs of these two editors. 

Vim can use many GUI libraries besides gtk2, including gnome, gnome2, gtk, athena, motif, and neXtaw. But Emacs uses XDisplay or gtk2 for its GUI. 

3-Ease of Learning

Beginners believe Vim is difficult to learn because it has different editing modes. On the other hand, they find Emacs easy to learn because it provides a more natural interface. Those familiar with GUI-based text editors believe that Emacs has a simpler learning curve.

4-Extensibility and Customization 

Emacs has extensive customizability, which gives this editor the upper hand. As an Emacs user, you can choose from various macros to reduce the effort needed in your process and integrate your workflow. On the other hand, Vim relies on its straightforward process and lacks customizability.

It's easier for Vi users to utilize Emacs as it is capable of emulating Vi, called “viper mode”. At the same time, Vi is easier to use but lacks such capabilities. Generally, Emacs supports more customization of the editor environment than Vi, but both support plugins to add more functions.

Many users find this feature valuable and useful, making Emacs better than Vi.

5-RAM usage 

Vim uses less memory than Emacs and is lighter. Those who support Vim's use of resources criticize Emacs by suggesting it stands for "80 Megabytes And Constant Swapping". You can run a single persistent Emacs process to support several clients simultaneously through gnuclient. This increases startup speed and also reduces total memory usage.

6-Productivity and Editing Speed

Speed is the main difference between Emacs and Vim. Vim is faster because it starts up in less time.

Vim’s deliberate speed gives it an edge over Emacs when editing files. Many users claim that learning how Vim works speeds up their productivity since they become more efficient with the different modes and commands. To move the cursor between words, users must change modes. This is because standard text editing functions are attached to the movement. However, choosing between movement and text editing requires a different mode. Doing so reduces the time it takes to move the cursor by removing the need for hand movements.

By default, using Emacs requires pressing the Ctrl-B or Ctrl-F keys consecutively. This can increase the time a new user takes to figure out how to use Emacs to its fullest extent. Allowing Emacs to be customized encourages increased productivity since it doesn't require significant changes in how people interact with the program.

In this tutorial, we discussed Emacs vs Vim and their similarities and differences. Considering your needs, now you can choose the best text editor to handle your work. 

Many programmers prefer to use Emacs as it's more customizable than Vim, and they can customize it to their particular requirements. On the other hand, other programmers find Vim faster and better suited to their programming environment. 

Vim's plugin development support is extensible in elisp, while Emacs' can be extended in elisp. In addition to emacs, vim has its scripting language and makes it easy for users to create plugins using other programming languages. Vim can be extended on the fly using the command mode, unlike Emacs, which can be extended using an elisp script; Vim also supports other programming languages.

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Susith Nonis

I'm fascinated by the IT world and how the 1's and 0's work. While I venture into the world of Technology, I try to share what I know in the simplest way with you. Not a fan of coffee, a travel addict, and a self-accredited 'master chef'.